The Day I Became a Giant Puppet Master

Meet the Astral Gypsies.

Have you ever seen a giant, dancing, light-up octopus hovering over a pulsing crowd of electronic music lovers?

I have. All thanks to the Astral Gypsies, a Missouri-based giant puppet troupe that I had the fortune of working with last weekend at Electric Daisy Carnival Orlando. The troupe travels all over the country, bringing its whimsical, culture-inspired puppets to festivals everywhere. Last weekend the group had to split (it was booked for two events), and so Sheena and Michael, the masterminds behind it all, posted a craigslist ad soliciting help for EDC. Seeing as I live about 20 minutes from Orlando and love electronic music, I was all in. My reward would be a free ticket that granted me full access, free food, and $100. It was a match made in heaven.

For those of you who don’t know, Electric Daisy Carnival – also held in Las Vegas and other cities and produced by Insomniac Events – is an all out raver extravaganza (see the Insomniac motto: It’s all about the experience.). Featuring interactive environments, carnival rides, performers and, of course, special effects, it is quite a show. And don’t forget this year’s Orlando headliners, Bassnectar, Tiesto, Armin van Buuren, and more. I can’t say I was disappointed with the Astral Gypsies’ offer of a free ticket in exchange for my hand as a puppeteer.

I may have underestimated how much work I was signing up for, though. The puppets – crafted by Sheena, the seamstress, and Michael, the builder – are meant to impress (which is a nice way of saying they’re large). Now, mind you, I am a not-so-hefty female, and these things weigh about 30-40 lbs. And those are just the single-person characters. Some have to be operated by multiple people, such as the 10 ft. tall Hunter S. Thompson that needs one person to support the body and two more to support the arms. Then there’s the aforementioned octopus, which requires a center and another six people to operate the arms (yes, I know that technically makes him a septopus).

Hunter S. gets ready to rage
That being said, operating the puppets was some of the most fun I’ve ever had at a festival. The people love them! I spent some time as Isis, the Egyptian goddess; the Cheshire cat, a big crowd-pleaser; one of Hunter S.’s arms and an arm for the octopus. I also got to be a mushroom for a bit (those weren’t puppets, more like costumes). Every time we took those suckers into the crowd people went crazy! I must have been in hundreds of pictures – of course, in most of them you can’t see my face. The octopus was definitely the biggest hit, and we took him right into the thick of it for some of the bigger late night shows. It was such an awesome experience! I got pats on the back and thank yous from people in awe of what we were doing.

But back to the Gypsies. My entire experience was made possible by two very dedicated people. Sheena and Michael started making puppets back in the winter of 2010 as a way to get into their favorite shows for free. (We all know we’ve tried.) They sent out a few emails to different festivals to see if they’d be interested in having giant puppets at their shows. When they got return emails saying yes, they got to work, building about 10 puppets in three months. They now have 18, and have plans to build more for next year’s season. As you can imagine, these puppets take up a lot of space, so they travel with them in a renovated school bus that houses a diner-style table, two couches, a fridge and a futon. Having that as a hang out spot during the festival was amazing, not to mention the awesome people I met who also answered the craigslist ad (plus two on-the-bus travelers).

Get on the bus
I didn’t actually get to meet Sheena, as she was coordinating the puppets at the other gig, but Michael was energizing and inspiring. I could see the passion for what he was doing and for the smiles he was bringing. He said, “I don’t want to just go to the show, I want to be part of the show.” And so we were, the Astral Gypsies giant puppet troupe.

I am very grateful for my weekend of fun and festivities, and for all the smiles and pictures I was a part of. But I leave you with this word of wisdom: If you ever encounter a giant puppet, remember, there is a person inside that costume, so don’t do anything to him that you wouldn’t want done to you.

Astral Gypsies on Facebook

Thandiwe Ogbonna is a music writer gone rogue. Inspired by the love, acceptance, and incredible stories she has encountered on her journeys to and from live music events across the East Coast and Midwest, she has decided to document her experiences and share them with the world. Tweet to her, @ThandiWay, and tell her about yours.
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